Christmas cheer and corporate conduct

five person standing while talking each other

In the words of Noddy Holder… ITS CHRISTMAAAAAAS!

Christmas is a time full of festive cheer and a time to celebrate the year together, but it can be a tricky time when it comes to setting boundaries.

What can often be a merry time of year, can turn into an HR nightmare, frequently via the dreaded Christmas party. We have all heard stories of that one person in the office that has a bit too much of Santa’s special punch and decides that the office party is the perfect time to voice their grievances or declare their undying love to a fellow colleague.

Most of you will be arranging your Christmas parties (or should have already!!), which often take place in a public space or shared space with other companies or members of the public. It’s therefore essential to uphold corporate conduct/values, to be mindful of considering the whole workforce in the planning, and a time to protect your company’s reputation.

Christmas parties are a time where core relationships can be made and team bonds improved (who doesn’t love festive karaoke!), but how can you avoid inappropriate behaviour and set expectations.

Here are a couple of ways that can assist you in avoiding bad behaviour and keeping your employees safe:

  • Pre-plan – Prepare for the season. Remind all employees of the expectations, they are still representing the company and appropriate behaviour is expected. Education on understanding boundaries will be important to ensure employee know what is expected from them, and to assist you with demonstration that you have taken steps to do all you can to reduce the risk of things going wrong.
  • Keep it simple though prevention planning – Alcohol, as much fun as it can be, can sometimes exacerbate issues across the workforce so consider refraining from providing a free bar or a mix of spirits. Maybe choose to give gifts instead.  If you would like to extend the company’s hospitality to more than a complementary Christmas meal, experience shows us that those employers providing two or three drinks per person, plenty of water and soft drinks fare well.
  • Be inclusive – Ensure that you cater for all. Are there individuals that have specific dietary needs, for example individuals may have specific religious dietary requirements. Is your selected venue set up with appropriate access in order that individuals with specific physical impairments aren’t excluded from attending? Have you catered for the non-drinkers?
  • Think wider – Consider the H&S implications of any party planning. Employers have a duty of care for the health and safety of their staff whilst on work events, but don’t forget that it’s not just whilst at the event, this also extends to how people get home. Should you put on a bus/taxi back home or is your event in a place that makes it easy for staff to get home, to avoid those being tempted to drink and drive or walk home alone?

What to do if things don’t quite go to plan…

There will be times when your planning doesn’t result in alignment to company expectation, and therefore you should ensure that you consult your Handbook to deal with issues. Don’t ignore poor behaviour as this can result in disgruntlement and business risk. Check that you have an up-to-date grievance, bullying and harassment and disciplinary policy, and if needed get these reviewed.

Do things actually go wrong?

To assist us with playing the role of the Grinch, here are couple of examples of when things go really wrong:

Hunt and Sutton Group – Canadian case (2002) – Hunt was intoxicated after an office party.  Her employer offered to get her a taxi home or call her husband.  She declined.  She then proceeded to drive to a pub (with work colleagues) and after that decided to drive home where she crashed and incurred head injuries.  She was then unable to work.  The court found that the employer did not do enough to discharge responsibility at the office party and were found to be 75% liable for the incident.  It was said that they should have done more; taking away her keys or even calling the police to assist with the situation would have been appropriate.

Bellman v Northampton Recruitment Limited – Northampton Recruitment Limited was held vicariously liable for its managing directors’ assault on Mr Bellman when drinking in a hotel bar after the company’s Christmas party in the Court of Appeal.  Although their drinking session was not an extension of the Christmas party, it had to be seen against the background of the evening’s events.  It was not a spontaneous drink party afterwork.  This occurred on the same evening as the work event which was paid for by the company.  It is said that the two punches which caused Mr Bellman a fractured skull rendering him unconscious occurred because of the Managing Director’s seniority and the fact that he had asserted his authority.  There was a sufficient connection between The Managing Directors job and the assault for his actions to be considered ‘in the course of employment‘ to mean that the employer was vicariously liable for his actions.

But don’t despair, in most cases the festive season is a time for fun and building better internal and external relationships, and we are here to help.

If you do have a question or an issue does arise, remember that Law At Work is open over the festive period to provide advice and support for employers. All things well, however, you will have a relaxing, enjoyable break and the whole team at LAW wish you all a Merry Christmas and New Year.

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